Crowds dropping at Amex for first time
5 December ~ This weekend Brighton travel to Derby for the teams’ first meeting since the Seagulls lost there in last season’s Championship play-off semi-final. Despite that defeat, there was no reason for Brighton fans to feel too disappointed with their performance in 2013-14. The campaign saw their second successive appearance in the top six, and they also had the highest home attendance figures in their division, again for the second season in a row. Six months on, how different things look.
Despite an unexpected defeat to Leeds last time out, Derby top the Championship and look well set to make up for last year’s disappointment. Brighton, on the other hand, flounder in the bottom three after a campaign which has so far seen only three wins in 19 league games ― and two of those were in August.
The third came against Wigan, one of only two teams still below the Albion in the table, courtesy of a first-minute goal and then 89 minutes of hanging on. Against Fulham last weekend, things were going reasonably well until Brighton took the lead, at which point they lost the plot almost entirely, going down to a 2-1 defeat. This is not form which instils confidence in fans or boardroom.
Last season’s manager, Óscar García, left after that play-off loss to Derby amid rumours of arguments with the club’s chief executive, Paul Barber ― specifically over the January 2014 sale of Ashley Barnes to Burnley. (With hindsight, after the health problems which forced him to leave Watford after only a game in the autumn, Brighton might not have retained García’s services anyway.)
His successor, Sami Hyypia, seems unable to inspire the team nor get them to play the way he apparently wants them to. The summer departure of Leo Ulloa to Leicester for a record fee of £8 million seemed good business at the time but exposed how much Brighton relied on him to lead the line last season, and Hyypia has failed to craft his replacements into any kind of attacking unit. It is symptomatic of performances so far that the team’s highest scorer, with five league and cup goals, is Lewis Dunk, a centre-half.
For the first time since it opened in 2011, swathes of empty seats are being seen at the Amex stadium, as crowds vote with their feet and ignore the nervous and poor fare on offer. There are few sources of optimism beyond a hope that some kind of magic trick will be pulled off in the January transfer window and that as part of it, Hyypia will be replaced. Having built the Amex without accruing debt Brighton are not a club in crisis, but for the first time in a while, its team is. Drew Whitworth